When we think of batting crown contenders, we have an image in our minds of a high contact line drive hitter who sprays the ball to all fields. Good power certainly helps as home runs are hits and don’t factor into BABIP, so hitting home runs are an easy way to boost batting average without requiring an increase in BABIP. Speed also helps as it could lead to a greater rate of infield hits and even bunt hits. Chris Johnson isn’t exactly the picture of a batting average leader, and yet, he finished second in the National League with a .321 mark, which ranked fifth in baseball.
But, Johnson makes below average contact, as his Contact%, SwStk% and K% were all worse than the league average, what little speed he had completely disappeared (no steal attemps and no triples) and his power output was mediocre having posted just a .136 ISO. Despite the majority of his skills suggesting a lower batting average, he has now hit above .300 twice and sports a career .289 mark. How has he continued this magical act?
The obvious reason why he was able to record a career high in batting average was because of his .394 BABIP. That mark led baseball and ranked third highest in the past 10 years. His career BABIP now stands at an impressive .361. We talk a lot about how Joey Votto has become the model for a high BABIP hitter given his batted ball distribution. Let’s compare Johnson’s to Votto’s without the names.
These are very similar batted ball profiles. Without any additional information, it would appear that Player B’s is a bit more attractive as he hits fewer pop-ups and has a slightly more balanced batted ball direction mix. Player B is in fact Mr. Votto. But Johnson isn’t far behind as he goes up the middle frequently and alternates hitting it to the pull field with going the opposite way.
This type of batted ball mix is the exact recipe for an inflated BABIP. Johnson’s xBABIP (which remember, does not include batted ball direction yet) was .343, which although is a far cry from .394, likely ranks as one of the highest in baseball. It is important to remember that formulas like xBABIP factor in lots of regression and so they will usually miss on the extremes. Obviously no one should expect another .390+ BABIP, but he clearly has the swing to produce a consistently high mark.
Unfortunately, he still isn’t all that attractive if he’s just an empty batting average at third base. You want power from your corner infielder and Johnson hit just 12 homers this season. Of course, one of the issues is exactly what Votto “suffers” from. They are too busy whacking balls all over the field that they just haven’t been able to get the type of lift they need to hit lots of balls over the wall. This is perfectly fine in real baseball, but not necessarily so in fantasy where home runs are one of just five categories.
The good news is that Johnson’s average batted ball distance was 289 feet, which is well above average and should match with a much higher HR/FB rate than the low teens. More fly balls would also help and in 2012, he may have shown the best possible combination for fantasy owners. His FB% was 35%, but he still maintained a good batted ball mix that would lead to a high BABIP. If he didn’t strike out 25% of the time, he could have batted .300 that year as well, but with more power.
That’s the hope here — that his batted ball mix looks more like 2012, he sustains his strikeout rate gains from 2013 and his HR/FB rate surges to match his batted ball distance. It’s a lot to ask for, but not out of the realm of possibility. That upside could be a .300 average with 20 homers, somewhat similar to what David Freese owners thought they would be getting this year. That’s still not great though and the risk is that his batting average tumbles without a measurable jump in power. He ranked 14th among third basemen this year in fantasy value and that may make him too expensive to bother with.